Vail health feature: Technology can help you re-program your brainwaves |

Vail health feature: Technology can help you re-program your brainwaves

Laura Bell
Special to the Daily

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For more information on Amazing Brains, visit or call 970-343-2709 for the Edwards office or 720-891-8029 for the Steamboat office.

What do Pavlov’s dog and many U.S. ski racers have in common?

Not just a desire for treats and medals, respectively. The oft-referenced dog and athletes have conditioned their brains for optimum performance and outcome. Nicole McGuffin, a board-certified neurofeedback clinician, licensed psychotherapist, certified gestalt therapist and doctoral candidate in psychology, believes we can train our brains to respond to certain stimuli.

“Pavlov, a Russian physiologist in the 1890s, did many experiments with dogs and salivation,” McGuffin said. He found that dogs would salivate when he introduced meat powder. He associated the meat powder with the ringing of a bell. Later, he was able to remove the meat powder and ring the bell to make the dog salivate.

“This was later termed classical conditioning. It involves learning to associate an unconditioned stimulus that already brings about a particular response (a reflex) with a new (conditioned) stimulus, so the new stimulus brings about the same response,” McGuffin said.

Training brainwaves

At Amazing Brains, a neurofeedback therapy clinic in Edwards, therapists use these same classical-conditioning techniques to retrain brainwaves. Electrodes are placed on the scalp and earlobes while an amplifier provides instantaneous feedback — visual and auditory — to the client about his or her brainwave activity.

“A client would not ordinarily be able to reliably influence their brainwave patterns because of a lack of awareness of them. When, however, they can see their brainwaves on a computer screen a few thousandths of a second after they occur, it gives them the ability to influence and gradually change them,” McGuffin said.

McGuffin makes it quite clear that no electrical current is put into the brain — quite simply, neurofeedback is akin to physical therapy for the brain.

If your child broke her arm, then you would go to the doctor to treat the broken bone. It is no different in the brain. When issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, learning disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, depression or anxiety are present, they are hidden disabilities. Clinicians now have the ability to see the issue in a brain image and teach someone how to heal it.

“The mechanism of action is operant conditioning. We are literally reconditioning and retraining the brain. It is a slow, gradual process,” she said.

Neurofeedback as therapy

McGuffin believes anyone can benefit from neurofeedback, and she’s not alone. Nearly two decades ago, Frank H. Duffy, M.D., a professor and pediatric neurologist at Harvard Medical School, stated in the journal Clinical Electroencephalography that neurofeedback should play a major therapeutic role in many difficult areas.

In his findings, he reports, “In my opinion, if any medication had demonstrated such a wide spectrum of efficacy it would be universally accepted and widely used; it is a field to be taken seriously by all.”

In 2010, the Harvard School of Medicine published a letter supporting neurofeedback for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The American Academy of Pediatrics names biofeedback as Level 1 best support for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Neurofeedback has the potential to include any neurophysiological condition.

“We commonly treat depression, anxiety, learning disabilities, concussions, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and traumatic brain injuries and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder,” McGuffin said.

According to Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than 6.4 million children ages 4 to 17 are diagnosed with this disorder. In a randomized control trial, sustained improvements were found using in-school neurofeedback. According to the publication, 104 children were randomly assigned to receive neurofeedback. Parent response rates were 90 percent positive at the six-month post-intervention follow up.

Addressing mental health

Other applications for neurofeedback include uncontrolled epilepsy, cognitive dysfunction associated with aging, obsessive-compulsive disorder and stroke rehabilitation. Athletes, musicians and executives also use it for peak performance training.

Individuals are experiencing an improvement in performance due to the brain becoming stronger and more resilient to everyday stressors. The therapy has been proven to improve focus by lowering one’s susceptibility to emotionally charged actions and thoughts. Bottom line, McGuffin said, is it takes the “over-thinking” out of performing, leaving the mind pure and adrenaline fueled.

“Anyone and everyone can benefit, and many people come in to improve ski racing, focus at work, just feeling better in life and wanting more peak performance,” she said.

In addition to neurofeedback, McGuffin offers counseling to help family members understand what is happening in the process and how better to communicate with their child, spouse or whomever is undergoing neurofeedback. There are negative connotations regarding mental health in the country, but not so much with this process.

“While treatment is confidential, many people do choose to share with their circles about what they are doing in neurofeedback because they are excited that is has helped so much,” she said.

With regards to the stigma in mental health and seeing a counselor, McGuffin believes that, “So much of mental health is misunderstood by the general population.

“Seeing a therapist can create healthier relationships and healthier families. This is something everyone can benefit from, and it’s my belief we need to change the way we view mental health.”

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